Here we go again

Column - Robert Joseph

Robert Joseph
Robert Joseph

It hardly seems a year since the wine world was wondering how the Bordelais would handle the tricky task of selling their 2013 vintage en primeur. While there was no shortage of perfectly drinkable wines produced from that year’s grapes, no one could deny that it had been the region’s most climatically challenging vintage in three decades. The chateau-owners did their best to put a brave face on the situation, with Christian Seely of AXA Millésimes  stating that his company’s Pichon Baron is a “good” wine with “great purity and freshness” but with “higher than usual” acidity. This last characteristic is hardly likely to make most en primeur buyers reach for their wallets, but anyone who did splash out would, Seely said, experience “a joyous triumph over adversity, and the best expression possible of the vineyard in the circumstances of the Millésime”. 

Pichon Baron was widely reckoned to be one of the wines of the vintage and Seely’s contention that his 2013 wine should be of interest to fans of his brand is totally reasonable. But what price should those fans pay for it, and, more particularly, when and how should they buy it? The en primeur system is treated by the Bordelais as though it were one of the ancient pillars of their temple. But it’s no such thing; prior to the 1960s, chateau owners did indeed sell their wine as a future – sur souche, while it was still on the vine – to the negociants on whom even the most illustrious chateaux were reliant. The great, but tinier-than-expected 1961 vintage, and large but rain-spoiled 1969, demonstrated the dangers to both parties of agreeing purchases and prices before the wine was safely in the chais.

Interestingly, the move to selling en primeur in the spring after the harvest coincided with the removal of something that was a pillar of the Bordelais temple. Historically, most Bordeaux was bottled by merchants in Bordeaux or elsewhere. The decision by the 22-year-old Philippe de Rothschild in 1924 to bottle all of Mouton Rothschild’s wine every year was even less welcome than the 2012 announcement by Chateau Latour that it was leaving the en primeur system. Admittedly, over four decades after Rothschild’s decision, Château Palmer was still being bottled in London by Berry Bros & Rudd, so pennies take a long time to drop in Bordeaux, but ultimately change is not impossible. 

So, while accepting the principle of offering some of one’s wine as a future, there are several reasons to reconsider whether the en primeur system must remain in its current form. By fixing an annual date for the campaign to begin, producers are not only sometimes obliged to show wine that is unready, they are also at the mercy of global events. In 2015, there is a strong likelihood that the euro will become volatile. Does it make good business sense to price and sell all of one’s production against the background of a potentially temporary climate? 

Releasing wine at the same time as all the neighbours is also to be at the mercy of a small number of high-profile critics. Selling the wine in its infancy does nothing to encourage consumers to discover the delights of mature wine. In the past, it was part of a merchant’s job to keep and sell old vintages; very few do that now, which is why so much older wine ends up being sold at auction where fraudsters can take the market for fools. Château Latour is not alone in wanting to sell its wine when it is ready to be appreciated properly; plenty of New World producers now offer perfectly cellared, guaranteed-authentic ‘classic’ or ‘museum’ releases of their wines. It is ironic that this attitude is frowned upon in Bordeaux. The public nature of the en primeur campaign  is also now set against a growing awareness that wine that fails to find buyers at its release price somehow finds its way onto French supermarket and German discounters’ shelves at prices that raise questions over how much they paid for it.

Viewed dispassionately, while the annual en primeur circus has undoubtedly created an impressive amount of buzz for the region, the same could be said for the Hospices de Beaune auction weekend in Burgundy. The difference is that the latter does not involve the region’s producers declaring how much they want for their immature wine. The 2014 Bordeaux will not be easy to price, even if much better than the previous vintages. How much more can the latest vintage of Pichon Baron reasonably cost than the €54.00 ($61.00) asked for in 2013?



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